Life Lessons From Captain America: The First Avenger

I spent a ridiculous amount of my youth reading comic books. I like to tell myself this was a beneficial use of my time; that I’d spent all those hours reading something instead of just watching television or playing video games. That I’d expanded my vocabulary and my grasp of social issues and how to handle conflict.  That I’d somehow tapped into a deeper cultural and artistic experience.  In fact, M. Night Shyamalan expressed it so poetically in Unbreakable:

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I’ve come to believe that comics are our last link to the ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians drew pictures on walls about battles, and events. Countries all around the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe that comics, just at their core now… have a truth. They are depicting what someone, somewhere felt or experienced.

I’m old enough now to admit the only “truth” in all of this is that I was simply too lazy to read books without pictures, and that because my parents didn’t want me spending all day watching cartoons, I had to get my mindless superhero fix somewhere else if I wasn’t going to be permitted to zone out in front of the tube watching Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man.

Maybe I should have stuck to more serious literature.  Maybe if I’d spent more time reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I’d have matured quicker, and avoided a few of the disastrous decisions of my youth.

But then maybe I wouldn’t be a 42 year old man with a killer set of Wolverine-inspired muttonchops right now…

Which brings me to the point of this article.  Since around the year 2000 (when the first X-Men film was released), we’ve been living in an era that my childhood self would have killed to enjoy; an era packed with an almost constant stream of really well-made comic book films.

Sure, in the 80’s we had a few decent Superman films.  We even had the Burton Batman movies.  But they were nothing like what Hollywood is giving us today.  High-budget, well-written, brilliantly acted tentpoles with realistic CGI rendering what only existed in my imagination as a child before us in glorious high-definition digital cinema.

It’s a golden era, of sorts, and it reminds me constantly of why I really liked comics as a kid.

Because in the comics, the good guys can win.  The little guy finds a way to become mighty, and he remembers the simple humanity he came from, and with that, he stands for the right thing and helps those in need.  Every major popular comic character employs this formula, to one degree or another.  Superman was just an adopted farm boy who’d survived a global holocaust. The Hulk was just a geek who’d had a bad accident.  Iron Man was a narcissistic screw-up that nearly died before he got his act together.

But none of them appealed to me more than Captain America.  The great patriot.  The little guy who got a shot at being a hero, and was so committed to being a do-gooder, he was still mocked for it even after he’d saved the world countless times.  Cap never wavered.  Not in the face of authority or adversity or death itself.  Cap always did the right thing.  I’m not sure if this really helped sales of his comic series; it seemed like they were always trying to write Steve Rogers out of the picture, or mess him up with some accidental narcotic side effect, or something to make the character more edgy, like the Wolverines and Lobos and Cables of the era that were so popular.  But it never worked.  Captain America isn’t an anti-hero.  He’s a hero.  Period.

So I was a little worried when Marvel finally got around to telling his story on the big screen.  Sure, they’d already done really outstanding Iron Man and Thor adaptations; but each of those characters had a major flaw to overcome; an “edge” for today’s cynical audience to relate to.  Tony Stark was a selfish, womanizing, megalomaniac.  Thor was an egotistical jackass.  They had to get out of their own way to become heroes.  Steve Rogers?  His only flaw was that he was too small.  Maybe too modest.  My biggest fear was that they’d try to darken his backstory a bit.

They didn’t, and we got a Captain America that was true to the character.

So, without further ado, I present to you the first in a series of articles in which I examine some of the not-so-hidden meaning placed in today’s comic book movies with an examination of the life lessons you can find in Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I can do this all day.”

There are times in life when you’re going to take a stand for something, and that’s going to result in you getting your ass kicked.  That’s the essence of courage: Fighting for something that is almost certainly going to result in a great degree of pain.  But, as Steve Rogers shows us, the trick is to not back down.  Because in most cases, the adversity won’t kill you. That doesn’t mean you’ll win; Steve didn’t beat the bully in the alley; he had to get bailed out.  In fact, the second time he uttered this line in the movie to the Red Skull, he also had to get bailed out. That doesn’t diminish the value of taking a stand, or the courage it requires.  There was no way he knew Bucky would come along to save him from the bully before he’d been beaten to a pulp, and there was no way he could be sure the Howling Commandos would break into the Red Skull’s lair before he’d been shot.  Sometimes, the willingness to endure the pain and a little faith that it will all work out is enough.

“Is this a test?”

Twice early in the film, Steve Rogers asks this question.  On the surface, it seems a bit obvious to the viewer; of course it’s a test.  But that’s the point: Steve is openly aware of when life is throwing a significant test of his character at him, and he overtly acknowledges this.  The point here isn’t that Captain America is Captain Obvious; the point is that maybe, we, the audience, need to be a little more obvious about it in our own lives.  How often are we presented with tests of character without taking enough time to even recognize them, let alone respond admirably to them?  Perhaps we’d all be better off if we’d stop and ask ourselves this question once in a while.

“A weak man knows the value of strength.”

Doctor Erskine picked Rogers to be his first Super Soldier based on his character, and because, ultimately, he knew Steve would appreciate the value of his gift more than most.  But this isn’t just about weak vs. strong.  The message applies to all walks of life: We appreciate most the blessings that improve our most desperate situation.  The sick man knows the value of health.  The poor man knows the value of wealth.  The ignorant man knows the value of knowledge.

(I can do this all day…)

More to the point: We tend to take what we have in abundance for granted.  That was Erskine’s fear, I think; giving power to someone that was already mighty.  Don’t take your blessings for granted.  Even if you’ve had to work for them.  It’s easy to forget their value.

“Cut off one head, two more take its place.”
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Just as you’ve defeated an enemy, he throws that in your face.  And that’s life, really.  Get used to it.  You overcome one problem, and you’re going to be faced with two more.  Should we despair over this?

“Let’s go find two more!”
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Colonel Phillips gets it.  Don’t wait for the two more – load up and go find them.  They’re out there, and they’re not getting any softer while you stand around.

“Write that down.”
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You’d think Howard Stark would have a pretty keen memory for this sort of thing.  But that’s not what he’s saying here: In this scene, he’s getting a little full of his own brilliance, remarking that the energy source that Cap brought back from the Hydra base has properties that he couldn’t possibly understand.  And then he’s immediately humbled by his own carelessness.  Stark acknowledges this immediately: No, he’s not going to forget that explosion, but he’s not going to take it, or his own understanding, for granted, either.

Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out.  Don’t assume you’ll remember it.  Don’t assume you can’t screw it up, even if you’re really, really good at what you’re doing.  Respect the process. Write it down.

“There are limits to what even you can do.”
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When Captain America assaults the Red Skull’s fortress and is captured, his adversary mocks the arrogance and audacity of his plan.  And that’s what naysayers do; they’ll tell you that you’ve aimed too high, that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.  Because, like the Red Skull, they want you to fail.  Never mind what the Red Skull wants – only you can decide what your limits are.

“What makes you so special?”

Nothing. And this drives the Red Skull nuts.  Surely there must be something special about Captain America, something that gave him an advantage, and made it possible for him to foil his plans all this time.

But there’s really not.  Cap doesn’t have anything the Red Skull doesn’t have.  And the same is true of our heroes, mentors, role models, and especially our rivals.  They don’t have anything special.  In most cases, the only advantage anyone really has over you is the time they’ve spent putting in the work to prepare.

So get out there and get to work.  You’re not special.  Just like Captain America.

Transformation Tuesday

For the record, I think “Transformation Tuesday” is a silly social media fad, and this will be my first, last, and only time embracing it, as I believe personal growth, be it spiritual, physical, or intellectual, is a constant process, not simply a finite project. 

With that said, it has now been exactly one year since I started taking better care of myself following my 40th birthday.  I know, because I took a photograph of my last can of soda on September 9 of 2014:

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This was typical of my diet a year ago.  I’d consume about 6 cans of soda a day, I ate anything and everything, and I didn’t get any exercise. 

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I can’t tell you my exact weight, because I was pretty ashamed of it.  I didn’t step on a scale until I was about a month into the process, but I figure I was a bit over 300 pounds.  I felt like a lousy role model for my kids, and I had high blood pressure.  I was on the fast track for Type 2 diabetes and an early grave. 

It was about this time I came across an article about Jared Lorenzen in ESPN the Magazine.  The author, Tommy Tomlinson, wrote honestly from the perspective of one fat guy talking to another, and this paragraph in particular hit me right between the eyes:

He has trouble sleeping, and his snoring just about cracks the drywall. Stairs are starting to give him a problem, especially with his leg still healing. We see our futures, and they’re not long ones. I’m 50, and I might feel it more deeply than he does. Nobody who’s 65 looks like we do.

   “Nobody who’s 65 looks like we do.”

I decided I didn’t want to be dead before I got to meet my grandkids. 

The first thing I did was quit the soda.  Cold turkey.  It wasn’t easy.  Mountain Dew was my poison of choice, and that’s 46 grams of sugar per can.  170 calories.  I went from six per day (276g of sugar, 1,020 calories) to none. 

For the record, the World Health Organization recommends a healthy adult keep their daily sugar intake around 25g.  I was consuming ELEVEN TIMES that.

I lost at least 30 pounds in that first month, doing nothing else but quitting soda.  And, as my wife will tell you, I was a miserable bastard coming off that addiction. 

If you glean nothing else from this article, know this:  Soda is poison.  It is terrible for you, and it will kill you.  It was killing me.  I was addicted.  If you have it once a day, you are, too.  Quit. Now.

Once I’d kicked the soda habit, I started counting the other calories.  There was no specific diet plan, although I naturally gravitated toward a low carb/high protein diet, just because protein calories are more useful than carbohydrate calories when it comes to weight loss.  I don’t shun carbs completely, and I don’t really recommend that anyone do so – they’re important, in moderation, for muscle growth and energy.  I dabbled with paleo dieting a bit, and I’ll take whole organic foods when I have the option, but I’m not a fanatic.  GMOs and gluten don’t scare me, and all that really matters is that you not kill yourself with excessive calories and a ton of sugar or even artificial sweeteners. 

Basically, I went from about 5,000-6,000 calories a day of mostly junk to under 2,000 a day of mostly healthy stuff.

And then I started running.

I didn’t want to run.  I had intended to use my elliptical machine after I’d dropped down to 270 pounds.  I dragged it to my home office, where I could work alone on it, and started using it. 

It groaned terribly the first time I stepped on it.

I read the label.

“Maximum weight 250 pounds.”

I was too fat for exercise equipment.  Even after losing 30 pounds.  What a kick in the gut.

I live too far from town to join a gym, but I knew I needed regular cardio work.  So I decided to just run.  I wasn’t successful. Not right away.  I shuffled, down my driveway, for about 30 yards, and then walked.  Then ran some more.  Walked a lot more.  Made it half a mile.  Walked back home. 

After a week or two, I could run the whole half mile to my mailbox.  A few more weeks, I could run a mile.  Then a mile and a half.  Then two.

Then my sister, who had to withdraw from a Thanksgiving Day 5k Turkey Trot due to being very pregnant, offered to give me her spot in the race.  It was late October.  I had a little less than a month to train for a race that would require me to run over 3 miles. 

turkey trot

I finished in about 43 minutes.  Slow, but not completely awful.  And I had set a personal record to beat, which I discovered is the most important part of fitness: Unless you’re world-class, you’re really not competing with anyone but yourself. 

So I set out to beat myself some more.
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By the time I ran my next 5k in March of 2015 (The GCU Run to Fight Children’s Cancer), I was down to 37 minutes.  Still slow, but faster than before.

The next month, I ran the Redneck Run 5k in 36 minutes. 

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It was around this time that I decided to start lifting weights.

The nice thing about the weight lifting is that I could keep what little equipment I needed in my garage, and work in the evenings, which kept me from expiring in the Arizona summer heat. 

I found a good, simple, straightforward program – Stronglifts 5×5 – and have stuck to it.  It’s basically just five compound exercises done with a barbell: Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Overhead Press, and Barbell Row.  Three days a week, and you’ll build all the muscle you need. 

At this point, my weight sits somewhere between 220-225.  I don’t bother with the scale much.  I don’t track calories as meticulously as I used to, either, because I’m not tempted to overeat.  I workout a lot – 4-6 days per week, and that amount of effort is enough to discourage me from sabotaging it with poor dietary choices. 

I’d like to build more lean muscle mass, but I’m not really trying to lose any more weight, even though the NIH says I’m still fat for my height.  My blood pressure is normal now, and I can run all day if I have to.  I’m still slow.  I still have creaky old knees that make it hard to squat heavy.  But I’ll probably live long enough to see my grandkids now.

muscle beach

Comics

I’ve read comic books since I was old enough to read.  The tales of super heroes have always fascinated and enthralled me.  It is a pleasure I am glad to share with my son.

But today, my daughter wanted a graphic novel.  And I was struck by how much the comic book industry has failed little girls.  There were two options with female heroines: a Cat woman novel in which she fights thugs in her lingerie on the opening page, and a thirty dollar Wonder Woman hardback filled with more bloodshed than a Frank Miller novel.

In short, there was nothing appropriate for a seven year old girl, and that disappoints me greatly.

Best Gameday Giveaway Ever

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Redundancy…

So I’m on a lot of different social networks. 

I use Facebook a lot.  I use Twitter almost as much.  I have LinkedIn and Google+ accounts I hardly ever use.  I think you can tell I don’t think too much of Instagram.  And Lord only knows what else they’ll come up with next.

I like social networking.  I think it’s a fantastic way to share news and ideas and keep in touch with family.  But I also think it’s overkill.  And while there’s a certain art to fitting a clever status update into the confines of a Twitter post, I think we could all stand to embrace a slightly longer attention span.

So, I’m going to try to post most of the good stuff here.  Because then I’m not held to the whim of a company that may or may not go the way of MySpace in the future.  I can still share the posts I make here on Twitter (which automatically shares to Facebook…) and keep all my social network friends in the loop, but I also like the idea of owning my own online real estate and presenting it how I want, free of advertising and independent of whether or not the venture capital runs out on the current online fad.